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What does “Craft” mean anyway?

Geoffrey Chaucer once wrote

“The lyf so short, the craft so longe to Lerne.”

There has been much publicity recently about the rise of “craft” beverages, mainly beer and spirits as of this point.  There has also been some disagreement as to what “craft” actually means.  Several lawsuits have come up in the recent months targeted towards brewers that are positioning themselves as “craft” brewers however are in actuality much larger than the consumer may believe based on their marketing. Such is the case with this lawsuit, recently posted on Lehrman Beverage Law.  This got me thinking about what craft is supposed to mean and why are only small producers considered craft.  The Brewers Association has even gone out of their way to post a definition of what they consider a “craft” brewer.  The main three guidelines of their definition is that the brewer must be small, independent, and traditional.  In combing through the TTB’s website, I don’t think that there is a legal definition of craft and so far it seems to be up to the industry itself to regulate this term, much like the term “Reserve” in wine.

Let’s look at the literal definitions from Webster’s Dictionary.

There are three ways the word “craft” can be used.

Two are nouns.

1) An activity involving skill in making things by hand

2) a boat or ship.

Obviously it is the first one that we are interested here.

The third is a verb as in “to craft”.

3) Exercise skill in making something.

I have made wine for 12 years now.  I’ve made wine in sizes from 2 cases all the way up to 1.7 million cases. It takes great skill to make wine in any size.  You do have less room for error in the smaller case counts however you have less time to perfect your wine at the larger case counts.  It takes a long time to master winemaking regardless of the size you are working with.  What does this have to do with craft beer?  The interesting thing that struck me while reading the above lawsuit was that it seemed the main argument is that the beer can not be “crafted” due to the large number of cases that are produced under the label.  It made me think about the brew master who I’m sure is working diligently every day to make sure each and every case of Blue Moon is crafted in the same high quality way and likely doesn’t get the credit that I’ve seen smaller brewers get.  Maybe I’m comparing brewing to the wine industry too much however, I’ve seen the same thing happen in wine as well.  Well made wines at the entry level in the marketplace do not get the same respect that wines at the top of the market do.

The “craft” is the profession as a whole; either brewmaster, winemaker, or master distiller.  One cannot say that because one label is a larger production than another that it does not fall under the craft of brewing, winemaking, or distilling.  Our industries are fortunate because they still require a human to produce the product. Unlike other crafts such as woodworking or metal smithing, which have largely been taken over by machines of mass production, the production of beer, wine, and spirits still needs someone to oversee the process.  Of course, there have been improvements in technology, monitoring and efficiency but the key remains that in all three of these beverage industries, regardless of price point, you need someone to craft the beer, wine, or spirit.

Please don’t misunderstand.  I am very excited by the craft movement and the drink local philosophy that comes with it.  With the three tier set up in this country it is REALLY hard for small producers to make a name for themselves but now it seems the consumer is searching these small, independent producers out.  This is FANTASTIC for the industry particularly in a country where the majority of the population still doesn’t drink at all!  I just wanted to put my two cents out to not take the brewer’s association definition of craft too seriously and to remember that even behind that bottle of medium or large production beverage, there is a craftsman (or woman) working hard to perfect their craft.

Vintage 2015 Update: Napa and New York

I’m in Napa this week checking in on the rapidly progressing vintage 2015. After one serious frost event this season a couple of weeks ago the vintage seems to be off to an otherwise not so bad start. Right now the shoots are between 10-14″ long and most varieties are blooming with the one exception of Cabernet which is just getting started. There was a bit of rain late in April which threatened to make trouble however it didn’t last very long (both fortunately and unfortunately depending on if your greatest worry is the crop or the drought). A quick run up into the 90s on Friday surprised everyone and those that had sprayed sulfur right before May have had some burning due to the quick heat spike. The weather today is a normal Bay Area foggy morning that will clear up to a sunny and warm afternoon, a trend with should continue for the foreseeable future. The vintage is currently running ahead due to an early bud break similar to last year. By all accounts Napa seems to be ok for water this year just getting enough rain this past season to keep the wolf from the door so to speak. While I’m not watching any particular vineyard out here now, I plan to keep you updated on the vintage progress.

In New York, we haven’t hit bud break yet. The trees have started blooming in earnest putting everyone on allergy high alert. We are seeing buds swelling now so we start to hope for minimal frost after the tough winter. Many growers are leaving extra buds to compensates for the winter damage however many of the Finger Lakes growers that I’ve spoken with say their vinifera came through fine. In some cases the snow pack was so high it reached the fruit zone and provided additional temperature moderation to protect the graft, trunks and buds. The weather has been warm with softly cool nights in the high 40s and low 50s. Hopefully that trend continues but overall we are behind about a week.

A Winemaker’s Request: Please Don’t Sell Solely on Scores

Before we left California, I did one final sales trip for my previous winery.  It was a week long and we were really doing well in the market.  People loved the wines.  They commented on the flavors and the value.  They were impressed with the work, care, and dedication that went into making each blend once I was able to describe each step of our winemaking and blending process.  I even heard sales people that were working beside me starting to adopt the story of the wines, not just pouring them.  From my view, it was going very well.

Then it happened…

A score came out…

92 from the area’s top critic.

The salespeople were, of course, ecstatic.

I was excited as well.  It’s always exciting when someone likes your wines enough to give them a high score and write about them.  I don’t care who you are or where you fall on the 100 point debate. Maybe you love or hate certain critics?  Maybe you think the day of major wine critics are over or if you think they will have influence forever? Regardless of all of this, if you are a winemaker, you want people to like your wines.  A high score is validation that you have done a good enough job to have someone notice and single it out.  As a winemaker who hovers around in the low 90s for a score average, I know how exciting a higher than average score can be.

There is a downside however.

As soon as the score came out, the story shifted from the actual story behind the wine to quoting the critic’s score.  Granted, this could be because I had different people with me every day and maybe these new folks weren’t as well acquainted with the story as those who had stood by my side listening to me repeat my winemaking for several hours.  I am certain they didn’t even realize the shift.  The customers were impressed but at that point I worried that they forget the story behind the wine and only remember the score.  Other consumers though, didn’t know what the score meant.  Others just walked away after that.  We missed a critical opportunity to connect and inspire customers with our story.

So I have a request to all wine sales people and wine merchants.  I don’t mind you telling people the score.  I would probably tell the score myself to the right customer.  Just don’t let it be your lead punch.  Tell the story of the land, the people behind the wines and the care they put into each bottle, the significance of the label design, the time taken to make sure everything is perfect for them, and after all that and ONLY after all that, then bring out the score.

Please.

There is too much that goes into each bottle to distill that hard work and passion down to a score and have the average consumer understand what that means.